Buizingen is a town of 6502 people (as of January 2020) on the northern edge of the city of Halle (or “Hal” in French) in central Belgium. The town is located in the Flemish Region of Belgium, 12km/7.5mi south of Brussels and 93km/58mi west of Liège.
The city lies on Railway Line 96, the Brussels-Quévy railway, a 85km/53mi double-tracked electrified main line connecting Brussels with Quévy on the French border. Opening in its full expansion in 1857 Line 96 is part of the Paris-Brussels railway line, used mostly by regional passenger trains but also by several high speed trains, seeing connections provided by the TGV, Thalys or Eurostar trains. In regular service trains on the line can go as fast as 160kph/99mph.
The trains involved
On the day of the accident P-Train (a local rush hour commuter service) E3678 from Leuven in the northeast of Brussels to Braine-le-Comte further south was provided by a triple-traction of NMBS (Belgian National Railway) AM62, led by unit number 214. Introduced in 1963 AM62s are 46m/151ft long two-part electric multiple units, offering 180 seats in a two-class configuration. Weighting 101 metric tons empty they can reach a maximum speed of 130kph/81mph thanks to their engine output of 735kw/986hp. A characteristic feature of the trains is a centered door in the nose-section, allowing passengers to move between units when coupled together into double- or triple-tractions.
Travelling in the opposite direction from Quiévrain on the French border towards Liège in eastern Belgium was E1707, an Intercity train. It consisted of 11 series M4mAD passenger cars, each offering 56 seats at 24.26m/80ft in length and weighting 38 metric tons and a leading M4mADx control car which weight 39 metric tons and housed 48 seats and a driver’s cab on the same length as the standard cars.
Pushing the train was NMBS/SNCB Series 21 number 2111, an 18.65m/61ft long four-axle electric locomotive capable of a top speed of 160kph/100mph at a weight of 84 metric tons. The Series 21 had been introduced in 1984 in a total of 60 units for both passenger and freight trains, although by the early 2000s their main purpose were Intercity trains. In total the IC had an empty weight of 541 metric tons, opposite E3678’s empty weight of 303 metric tons.
On the 15th of February 2010 at approximately 8:25am IC E1707 is passing through Halle and is approaching the southern outskirts of Brussels on its northbound trip to Liège, running 10 minutes behind schedule. The area is facing some bad weather, with heavy snowfall limiting visibility. Once it passes Halle Station the train is supposed to navigate a series of points to cross over into the right hand track to head to Brussels (South) Station. The train travels under a double-yellow signal, limiting it to 40kph/25mph.
At 8:26am the regional E3678 stops at Buizingen station, the next station north of Halle. Approximately 1km/0.6mi away the IC is about to change from one of the left hand tracks into the right-most track. Leaving Halle station, the IC accelerates and passes Halle’s green exit signal at 70kph/44mph and climbing. It’s 8:27am as the train passes the signal, at the same time E3678 departs Buizingen station. By the time it passes the exit signal, the driver of E3678 will later insist it was green, the train is accelerating past 60kph/37mph. At this moment the driver sees the silver E1707 through the snowfall, about to cross his path. He simultaneously uses the horn and triggers an emergency stop, but it’s too late. 29 seconds after he initiates the stop, at 8:28:19am, the two trains collide nearly head-on, at a slight angle. Both trains are travelling at approximately 70kph/44mph each, creating a violent collision equivalent to hitting a solid wall at 140kph/97mph.
The first three cars of either trains suffer severe damage, AM62 #214 is deflected off the IC in its entirety while the IC’s first car is compressed to a fraction of its size. Several cars fall over, get torn open or even telescope above the wreckage. The heavy trains are jammed together at such force at two of them stay angled up off the ground after the collision in the shape of an inverted V. Witnesses on the trains report a frightening experience, the barely 20 seconds long collision felt like it went on forever with noises of bending and tearing metal and people being thrown around the inside of the train cars. Of 300 passengers 18 die, along with the IC’s driver, while 171 suffer injuries, 35 of which being listed as severe.
The driver of another regional train, E1557 from Geraardsbergen to Brussels (South) sees the catastrophe unfold in front of his train, he triggers an emergency stop and brings his train to a halt just a few meters from the wreckage, barely avoiding another collision. His passengers later give statements, saying that two to three train cars of the other two trains had disappeared and that they were faced with “pieces of train and bodies” strewn all over the place. While some survivors on the two involved trains climb out of the wreckage, the driver of E1557 successfully keeps his passengers from leaving the train until the destroyed overhead wires are shut off. Alarmed by the driver of E1557 responders start arriving at 8:35am, and soon find the severely injured driver of E3678 sitting by the side of the tracks a few meters north of the point of impact, sobbing apathetically. He jumped out of the driver’s cabin at the last moment, letting him survive the collision. He was formally arrested, and then received medical attention.
Once the overhead wires were confirmed to be off and secured the responders rounded up uninjured survivors and those referred to as “walking wounded” (injured survivors who, in some cases with assistance, could walk), leading them a short distance down the tracks to a nearby sport center where medical and psychological attention could be provided. The center was also where relatives were directed both in person and when calling. A total of 89 injured survivors were released from the center and advised to head to the hospital on their own. More severely injured survivors were carried to tents set up nearby to be triaged and treated, before being distributed to fourteen surrounding hospitals by ambulance or helicopter. With most responders in the area being occupied by the disaster the Belgian Red Cross provided ambulances and crews for any other calls during that time. They also asked the public to donate blood, wanting to avoid drainage of the stockpile. Prime Minister Yves Leterme and King Albert II (who was still reigning at the time) returned from trips abroad and visited the site along with other high-level people from politics, law and the railway industry. Once all survivors were out of the train the responders could bring in heavy machinery to help them take the wreckage apart, 3 days after the accident the last victim’s remains were recovered from the wreckage.
It took until the 1st of March for full service to resume on the affected section, and another 18 days for any backup and delays to be sorted out. According to Infrabel, the company in charge of the railway infrastructure, 1109 trains were completely cancelled in the aftermath of the collision, and delays added up to 688 hours. Investigators fail to find any sign of a defect on the trains that could have existed before the collision, as far as they can tell both the trains and the signal-system were working fine at the time of the collision. The IC’s locomotive eventually returns into service, the remaining cars involved were presumably scrapped. The investigation’s report eventually reveals that, while it was clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the driver of the southbound E3678 departed without authorization and ran a red signal, he was not at sole fault for the accident. In 2009 the Belgian Railway had started installing the TBL 1+ safety system on their trains and tracks. The system, which was not present on E3678 but was present on the IC, would have auto-stopped the train as it approached the red signal at a high/increasing speed. Instead, the train only had a system requiring the driver to push a button to acknowledge a signal. The investigation found that the people in charge had dragged their feet on the introduction of the system, leading to legal procedures being launched against the French national railway (which was in charge of the Belgian Railway’s trains) and the infrastructure-provider Infrabel on charges of negligence. In December 2019 Infrabel and the SNCB were sentenced to pay 550 thousand Euros/645 thousand USD each, the train driver, controversially, was officially declared guilty but got away without a further sentence.
In the aftermath of the disaster the installation of TBL 1+ was drastically sped up. All Belgian trains were fitted with it by September 2014, and by December 2016 Belgium banned foreign rolling stock without the system from their railway lines. However, even by 2019 the Belgian network was not completely covered by TBL 1+, the latest deadline being 2023 as only a quarter of the tracks in Belgium were equipped with the system so far.
In 2013 the Belgian national railway retired the last AM62, by that point the trains were around 50 years old, as new Siemens “Desiro”-trains had been introduced as the AM08. Two units were given to fire department academies for training, the rest was scrapped. None were preserved. The first series 21 locomotives were retired in 2014, being stripped for parts to keep the stronger series 27 going for longer. Their full retirement is yet to be announced.
On the 15th of February 2015, the fifth anniversary of the collision, a memorial plaque was unveiled in the town center of Buizingen, finishing the memorial which, until then, had consisted of little more than a wide triangular stone on an asphalt base. During the ceremony, some survivors and victims’ relatives expressed their hope that the legal back and forth would end soon and a definitive cause and fault would be declared.
In late 2017 Netflix faced some backlash after it became public that their movie “Death Note”, released earlier that year, used footage from the collision’s aftermath in what was considered a disrespectful manner and apparently without permission. At the time it was explained that, while the aerial footage of the wreckage (which the movies claims to be in Mexico) doesn’t show any victim or survivor in an identifiable way, it still poses an unjustified intrusion into their pain, an invasion of their privacy. It’s unknown if any legal consequences ever took place. While Netflix insisted that the use of the footage was legally fine they still ended up taking the movie off their page in spring 2019, re-releasing it a few days later with the sequence cut from the movie.